OFF THE GRID

Can WikiLeaks Save Journalism?

Jul 27, 10 | 7:44 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The WikiLeaks papers remake the journalism world.

For one, they kick the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal out of the circle of world’s best print journalism organizations. The Post loses this position because of how it has been shrinking itself down to a more economic size and abandoning its national standing (curiously, the Pentagon Papers leak, 40 years ago, represented the Post’s bid for national standing). The Journal loses this position because of Rupert Murdoch.

It would have been a telling test if Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leaker, had offered the material to the Journal. That would have put Murdoch in a tortured position: whipsawed by the desire to match his competitors and his abhorrence of challenging governmental authority, especially about national security. (Murdoch regarded both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate as irresponsible journalism.) WikiLeaks made this decision for him: He didn’t get this leak because he’s not in the first rank.

The Guardian is. In a sense this leak makes official the transformation that the Guardian has been working to achieve for more than a decade: it’s an international journalism organization of record. The Guardian is the equal of the New York Times. WikiLeaks gives too a nod to Der Speigel as a news magazine (in a sense the only news magazine) that still counts.

The WikiLeak also changes the very form of the leak—and the position of the leaker.

One of the burdens and wonders of the Pentagon Papers leak was the sheer logistics of copying, storing, and delivering all that material. The WikiLeak makes leaking—leaking on a historical level—just a digital transfer. Odd, that leaking has taken so long to catch up with the technology. It’s been done like this in movies for years: the before-our-eyes download that captures everything. But it really seldom has happened this way in workaday journalism—in part because journalists aren’t that technically adept, and in part because people with access to data don’t, I suspect, read newspapers. But this, now, is the new model: As Daniel Ellsberg, and then Woodward and Bernstein, remade journalism into a transaction of reporters and sources, now it will be a hackers function.

It is notable that the Times is, rather haughtily, trying to cast Julian Assange in the Daniel Ellsberg role, with Bill Keller trying to argue for the Times' high value here: It analyzed and vetted. Well, yes, sort of. But really Assange, knowing he had the goods, established his network for the release—controlling when, where, and how.

The leaker has always been dependent on the media. Or, the publisher has always controlled the information. The information is driving now. The leaker is the journalist.

Who plays Julian Assange in the movie? Surely, nobody cool plays Bill Keller.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.